The number of exonerations in the U.S. of those wrongfully convicted were at a record high in 2013, at 87. The previous record high was 83 exonerations in 2009. The new report reveals some interesting trends in wrongful convictions that may help identify more and raise awareness.
- 17% of the wrongful convictions occurred in cases where defendants pled guilty. Innocent people pleading guilty to crimes they did not commit was far less common in previous years. The rate has nearly doubled since 2008. Innocent people pleading guilty to crimes they did not commit is largely attributed to fear of conviction at trial and the maximum sentence and coerced confessions being used as evidence.
- The great majority of exonerations in every year have consistently been homicide and rape cases. In 2013, there were 40 murder exonerations, including 1 death row inmate and 18 rape exonerations.
- During the past 25 years, 60% of wrongful convictions for homicides involved government misconduct.
- The report also revealed that more and more exonerations are non-DNA. The number of DNA exonerations has been slowly declining over the past 10 years largely because law enforcement and prosecutors test DNA evidence before trial in most cases. Only 18 exonerations in 2013 were aided by DNA evidence testing. While DNA exonerations have always garnered the most attention, they have always been the minority of exonerations. This fact is not surprising when compared to the number of cases with DNA evidence available.
- 33 of the known exonerations in 2013 were obtained with the cooperation of law enforcement, though the number is lower than last year. This trend was discovered in 2012 when 39 cases were aided by the cooperation of law enforcement. According to the report, police and prosecutors appear to be more open to reinvestigating possible wrongful convictions and more responsive to innocence claims than in years past. The subtle change in the legal atmosphere of the U.S. criminal justice system has caused prosecutors to create Conviction Integrity Units and to invest more resources in reviewing cases post-conviction. The report revealed where in the U.S., District Attorneys who are investing in integrity units are located. Dallas, Chicago, New York, and Santa Clara, California are among those who recently created such units.
“Police and prosecutors appear to be taking increasingly active roles in reinvestigating possible false convictions, and to be more responsive to claims of innocence from convicted defendants,” the report concludes.
- On average, it took 12 years to exonerate an innocent person, a number that is consistent with previous findings.
The report was a joint effort by the University of Michigan Law School and the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University School of Law.
HIGHLIGHTED EXONERATIONS FROM LAST YEAR
Nicole Harris (left), 23, had 2 young children and a psychology degree. She was convicted at trial by an Illinois jury in 2005 of murdering her 4-year-old son, Jaquari. The case was actually a no-crime case, meaning that the “victim” died by accident. Jaquari actually accidentally asphyxiated himself with a bedsheet cord that had come loose.
Harris had been coerced by Chicago police into falsely confessing after they pushed her around, threatened her, withheld food and water, and refused to let her use the restroom. After 27 hours, she gave a videotaped false confession that she strangled him. She was sentenced to 30 years in prison. The trial judge had suppressed the testimony of Harris’ 6-year-old son who witnessed his brother accidentally kill himself.
The boy said that Jaquari would pretend to be Spider-Man and use the cord to leap off the bed. He was playing the game when he accidentally hung himself. Harris’ original appeals were denied, but in 2012, almost 8 years later, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit vacated her conviction and ordered a new trial. The state appealed the decision, but the Supreme Court rejected the prosecutors’ argument for reinstating the conviction. The prosecutors dismissed all charges against Harris a few days later.
Another no-crime case, the case of Joseph Awe (right), owner of J.J.’s Pub in Wisconsin, who spent 3 years in prison for a crime that never happened. He was exonerated after a local newspaper ran a series on the case suggesting that his arson conviction was based upon flawed science and a conflict of interest. The conviction in this case was particularly troublesome because the building’s insurer, Mt. Morris Mutual Insurance Co., hired the fire experts who testified against Awe. The insurer stood to lose $200,000 if the fire was declared an accident. To top it off, the prosecution never informed the defense that its fire experts were being paid by the insurance company.
Awe was named a suspect in the “arson” the day after the fire, even before investigators had determined the cause. Awe’s fire expert told the jury it was an accidental electrical fire and the prosecution’s/insurer’s experts told the jury someone punched a whole in the bar and set the fire. Despite Awe having an alibi, he was convicted of being a party to the “arson”. Investigators never located the person who Awe allegedly enlisted to set the fire as part of an insurance scheme.
On appeal, Awe’s lawyer presented evidence from renown fire experts, including John Lentini, a leading expert in the field, and Mark Svare, who testified at the original trial for the defense. With the new insights and obvious questions of conflicts of interests for investigators hired by insurance companies, Awe was given a new trial.
Local investigators had heavily relied on investigative work performed by the insurance company. Mt. Morris paid the electrical engineer who made the call that the fire was not electrical, which spurred Deputy State Fire Marshal James Siehelr to have no other explanation, but arson. Siehelr told a local newspaper that it was common for them to hire outside experts, “we’re very reliant on insurance companies providing us with that resource.”
In a sick irony, Awe is being sued by the insurance company who gave the inaccurate testimony that convicted him of a crime that never happened. They want $67,000 from him, the amount that they spent investigating and helping to prosecute him wrongfully. The company expects to win their civil suit largely because the standard of proof is much lower in civil court.
“I just want to be with my family…,” Awe told the Wisconsin State Journal right after his exoneration, “I just want to be home.”
In 1970, Malcolm Emory was convicted of throwing a brick at a police officer. He was exonerated 20 years later when he discovered an unpublished newspaper photo that showed he was beaten by police without cause. The photo depicts Emory clutching his books as he is being dragged across the ground by police.
In 1970, Emory was a 19-year-old Northeastern University student who paused on his way home to watch an anti-Vietnam war demonstration. A fight broke out and Emory, who was on a full scholarship with the Navy studying physics, was caught in the middle. He was grabbed by police and beaten. One of the officers, Vincent P. Logan reported that Emory was holding a brick in one hand and a concrete block in the other and he threw the brick at him, striking him in the chest. Emory was innocent. He did not participate in the demonstration and in fact was holding his books the entire time.
Emory was charged with assault and battery with a deadly weapon on a police officer. At trial, Officer Logan testified that he struck Emory with his baton to subdue him after Emory threw a brick at him. Logan denied Emory had books. Emory was convicted by the jury and sentenced to 6 months in jail suspended and 3 years’ probation. His scholarship was revoked and he resigned from his job at the U.S. Naval Underwater Sound Laboratory and was stripped of his security clearance.
Emory had to leave school and for the next 15 years he worked various jobs around the country hampered by the stigma of his felony conviction. In 1985, he returned to Boston and decided to go to the public library and look for photos from the day after he was arrested. He tracked down the photographer and learned of an unpublished set of photos that could prove his innocence. It took 4 years of negotiations with the Boston Globe for Emory to be able to look at the photos without a subpoena. He found a picture of himself being dragged by police with his books in his hands. No brick, no concrete. Armed with the evidence of his innocence, Emory was granted a new trial and in 1990, the charges were dismissed. The following day, Emory was granted a full scholarship from Northeastern University to finish his studies.
In 1991, he finished his bachelor’s degree in physics, the degree he was working on in 1970. In 1992, Officer Logan pled guilty to accepting bribes to overlook liquor law violations and was sentenced to 90 days in jail. He was never charged with perjury in Emory’s case. Emory filed a malicious prosecution lawsuit against Logan in 1994 and was awarded $250,000.
- Highlighting the no-crime issue, the report revealed that 22% (or 27) of the exonerations were for crimes that never happened. This is a record number from previous study years.
The report is compiled annually as part of an effort to document the problem of wrongful convictions.